Vienna, December 3 – One in every three Russian households now has a computer at home, a development that helps to explain why ever more Russians are using the Internet for information and entertainment but also one that provides part of the reason why they are reading printed materials less.
The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) reports the results of a recent poll in which 33 percent of Russians said they or members of their families now have a computer, with the figures for younger, wealthier and urban significantly higher (http://wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/9271.html).
This rise in home ownership of computers helps to explain the dramatic rise over the last four years in the number of Russians who say they know how to use computers and can surf the Internet, as found by the Yuri Levada polling agency at the end of September this year (http://www.levada.ru/press/2007092804.html).
In that sampling, 46 percent of Russians said they knew how to use a computer and 83 percent said they knew how to use the Internet, in a country-wide survey of 1600 respondents, compared with 36 percent and 21 percent respectively in a similar poll conducted in by the same Center four years ago.
The rise in the number of people who have computers at home and know how to use the Internet is especially important in helping to determine the extent to which Russians are able to get news and information from this channel, now that the Kremlin has reduced the amount of freedom in other media.
But there is one striking finding of the latest VTsIOM survey that may undercut much cause for optimism. Unlike in most other countries where the rise in computer ownership has been followed closely by a similar rise in ownership of computer printers, in the Russian Federation, that has not yet happened.
Instead, for all but the most well-off groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg, home ownership of computer printers is under 10 percent, a figure that means few Russians can print out articles off the Internet. And that in turn suggests that relatively few of them will read any Internet item that is much longer than a single page view.
Another survey, conducted by the Romir/Gemius Audience research firm, provides the most detailed information yet on how Russians are currently surfing the net. The first batch of data from this survey, published today, show that Russians behave much like citizens of other countries when they go online.
That is, there are deep and completely expected divides along gender and regional lines, but that most people now use the Internet not only for entertainment and shopping but also for news and information at least over the last month when interest in the campaign was relatively high (http://www.romir.ru/news/res_results/437.html).
With regard to the just completed elections, however, at least one Internet expert, Anton Nosik, said in comments published today that he does not think the efforts of political parties to conduct agitation online had any effect at all on the outcome (http://www.ng.ru/ngregions/2007-12-03/19_nosik.html).
That may be the case, but clearly the behavior of the Russian authorities suggested that they believed otherwise. And a new Institute of War and Peace Reporting study finds that the Uzbek authorities are going even further to make sure the Internet does not affect voting there (http://iwpr.net/?p=rca&s=f&o=341048&apc_state=henh).
But if the rise of the Internet is giving Russians a new window on the world, it may also be contributing, as it is in other countries, to a decline in the share of Russians who read newspapers, journals and books, a decline especially striking in a country that has long prided itself for its high rates of reading.
In 1991, 48 percent of young Russians regularly read books, but 15 years later, only 28 percent of them did, according to one survey. And while in the 1970s, 80 percent of Soviet parents read aloud to their children, now only seven percent do, a decline so precipitous that the Kremlin is worried about the future.
Other statistics on readership among Russians are equally bleak. The percentage of Russians reading at least one book a year has declined from 79 percent in 1991 to 63 percent, and the quality of the books they are reading appears to have fallen as well (http://www.sundayherald.com/international/shinternational/display.var1857688.0.0.php). Similar declines have been observed over the same period for other parts of the hard copy print universe. In 1991, 61 percent of Russians read a daily newspaper; now, only 24 percent do. And overwhelmingly, Russians have stopped reading journals at all – with only one in 14 indicating that he or she does at present.
Competition from electronic media rather than cost appears to be responsible, as hardcover books in Russia now appear about 60 rubles (2.50 U.S. dollars). For poorer groups and for the poor and for non-Russian language outlets whose smaller print runs mean that they have to charge more now that they are without government subsidies.
Indeed, at a meeting of Finno-Ugric publishers last week, some editors said that “a book must not cost more than a piece of sausage, or people won’t buy it,” and all of them agreed that non-Russian language outlets must seek government aid – or aid from Finno-Ugric countries abroad (http://www.rosbaltvolga.ru/2007/11/27/435087.html).
But perhaps the clearest change in the landscape of Russian reading habits is marked by the remarkably small number of bookstores still around and the decline in the number and quality of the Russian Federation’s once impressive network of public and research libraries.
If in Europe, there are approximately 60 bookstores for every 100,000 residents, in the Russian Federation as a whole, there are only four per 100,000 and even in relatively well-off Moscow, there are only eight -- one-fifth the number relative to population compared to European standards.
And the country’s libraries are in worse shape, with cost-cutting measures not only leading to the closure of many smaller libraries outside of Moscow but also to a decline in the quality of holdings and services at the Russian National Library and at libraries attached to the Academy of Sciences.
Things have become so dire at these institutions, some librarians there say, the future of Russian scholarship and science is at risk. Indeed, they suggest, the Russian Federation is approaching the point where it may have “an Academy without Sciences” (http://www.za-nauku/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=222&Itemid=35).
The Internet and television are far from the only forces responsible for these trends, but they do play a role in leading some – including several prominent members of the Academy – to argue that with the Internet, libraries as a repository of the printed word are now of little use even for them.